Last week Jen, Martin and I went to a concert with Mark Knopfler, the legendary Dire Straits guitarist. An amazing experience! No big light shows or steam on the stage, no warm-up bands, no gimmicks - just indescribable good music and extraordinary synchronization between Knopfler and the rest of the band. Truly a group of great musicians, masters of their craft.
The experience led my thoughts to greatness in general: How do people become really great at something – music, art, business, chess, anything. How do they start out?
I saw two recent interviews where greats – Mark Knopfler in music and Baadur Jobava in chess – talk about the beginnings of their journey into their respective crafts. View the interview with Knopfler, and the interview with Jobava.
A common denominator – not just in these interviews, but in most if not all interviews and biographies I have seen with greats – seems to be that greats always respect the heritage of their craft and spend hundreds of hours working on the fundamentals early on.
To be able to later break the rules – necessary to become great, not just good at something – you first need to learn the fundamentals. Study the history of whatever you want to excel in and practice the fundamentals again and again – and again. Then, and only then, you can start experimenting with new ideas. If you are an aspiring musician, attending a Mark Knopfler concert should be mandatory and spend hours going 5-4-6-4; if you want to advance in chess, study the games of Capablanca, Alekhine and Rubinstein and make sure you know all the technical endgames inside out!
Unfortunately this requires extraordinary patience and focus, and we live in times that don’t seem to align well with such virtues. The modern world is fast-moving and diverse, with so many different activities that side-track people. On the one hand we have much easier access to the information needed in the first step to greatness – just go on YouTube and watch tutorial videos on playing guitar or turn on ChessBase and look for all Rubinstein’s rook endgames – but apparently less time for doing so. This is the paradox we are facing in the search for greatness.
As Mark Knopfler says: You need to have an obsession to get through the bad times, and the good times. Same thing in chess! Not an obsession with ratings, results and performance – this would be the road to struggle and disappointment. We all need an obsession with the game itself, that’s the only way to becoming great players.